Monday, July 5, 2010

Two Limbs Off the Same Tree?

As I've continued to send query letters and read agent blogs this past summer, it's occurred to me that there are a few aspects of an agent's job that I encounter myself, as a writing teacher. In some ways, I think agents and teachers are two limbs off the same tree. And realizing that has helped me immensely, in knowing what to do, and even more importantly, what NOT to do, in regard to agents. So, in today's entry, allow me to be quite blunt, about some teacher/agent similarities and pet peeves...

1) The paperwork. The outlandish number of queries that agents receive is similar to the outlandish amount of pages I grade each semester. In one agent blog yesterday, I read that a particular agency receives about 100 query emails per day. Wow. In one semester, I grade approximately 1,500 papers per semester (and some of those papers are 5-page research papers and 15-page short stories!). As well, I have 2 internet classes, and I answer anywhere from 1 to 100 emails PER DAY.

My point here is not to gain great sympathy from my readers (unless you really want to give it, lol), but to say that, like an agent, sometimes I can get very overwhelmed by the sheer numbers/masses of papers I'm grading. And because of that, one of my pet peeves is when students eagerly ask (over and over again): "Did you grade our papers yet???" This question sometimes comes 2 days after I've received a batch of 150 essays. And it sometimes comes later. The thing is, students have every right to know when to receive their graded papers. But, I always keep them apprised of my progress, and sometimes, I just wish they'd take my word for it and be a little patient. Their asking if the papers are graded actually just adds to the pressure I already put on myself, to get them finished.

The same rule applies with agents. You, as the writer, don't want to irritate the agent. So, find their turnaround time on their website, add about a month to that, and WAIT before sending a "nudge." In fact, today's entry by Bookends, entitled Settle Down, is about this very thing, and it's definitely worth a read!

2) Professionalism/respect goes a LONG way. 97% of my students each semester are incredibly respectful. They're kind and polite, and a couple of them might even give me a "Yes, Ma'am." But those 3% that aren't respectful make my job very difficult sometimes. The same can be said, I imagine, for agents dealing with writers. I imagine that most writers are respectful -- but, from reading those agent blogs, I can tell the disrespectful percentage is much higher than 3%. And it puzzles me -- why would writers burn their bridges that way? Why would they be rude to someone who essentially holds their writing career in their hands?

The same thing happens sometimes with students. Again, it's thankfully rare, but I've had students who flat-out lie to me when I've caught them in plagiarism (I'm talking 100%, no doubt, I have the word-for-word internet proof in my hand type of plagiarism). Other students use a sarcastic tone when they don't like the grade they've received. Still others seem to have "issues" (not emergencies, but constant excuses) and call or email me every week, to tell me why - again - they can't make it to class or could they PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE (yes, some students actually beg) have an extension because they forgot about the assignment. Still other students are constantly not following my clear instructions on assignments or due dates, and I have to constantly explain to them what they did or didn't do correctly.

Again, thankfully, these situations are rare. But -- they do waste my time. A student who plagiarizes sometimes costs me 45 minutes (that I don't have!) to track down the plagiarism online. A student who constantly calls/emails for little tiny reasons/excuses costs me time because I have to email/call them back each time.

So, back to the agent part of this example -- they, too, have cases where writers are rude, or don't follow instructions (this makes some agents VERY mad - it's worth it for writers to CAREFULLY follow each individual agent's submission guidelines). In both teaching and agenting, the courtesy/respect/politeness/professionalism of students/writers goes a VERY long way. I'll be really blunt here - my "favorite" students (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to have them) are the ones who follow instructions, don't talk/text in class, are on time (a big one!), and cause me NO extra time. Now, don't get me wrong - I love chatting with these students occasionally after class, about writing or their chosen career, etc. Those are "extra minutes" I never mind. But, these students basically cause me no problem at all. They're dream students. And THAT is the kind of writer I want to be someday to a literary agent. A dream writer!

3) We're here to help. Ultimately, if I get my nose out of the mountain of essays to grade, and I back away and see the big picture, I don't see my job as grading or lecturing. I see it as helping. My primary goal is to help my students become the best writers they can be. To help them be successful writers. That's the part of my job that's fun - when I can see the results. When I see the eagerness in their faces to learn. I never, EVER mind taking a few extra minutes helping a student that genuinely is seeking my help. One semester, a student came to me, horrified at his own grammar mistakes in a paper I'd just returned (9 run-ons!). He asked me for help, and there I stood after class, gladly showing him, run-on by run-on, how he could correct them. He thanked me and went on his way. The next paper? Had 2 run-ons. The next 4 papers? Had none. Zero. Now, sure, I'll accept a tiny bit of credit for those statistics, just showing him how to correct the errors. But the majority of credit goes to the student, for wanting help, and asking for it.

Similarly, I imagine that a lot of agents see their primary goal as helping the writer. Not necessarily that they have the time to edit a writer's work, or that their job is to help in the exact same way as mine. But they help in other ways - once they accept a book from an author, their job is to be an advocate for the book/author, to shop it around, to, essentially, represent the author and his/her book. Their job is to help the writer to succeed. And, I imagine that is why they became an agent. To help good books come to life in the publishing world - and to help good authors be successful.

In the end, like any job, an agent's job or a teacher's job has it's good points and bad. But I do think the similarities I see between them have helped me (hopefully!) know how to present myself in the best possible light to a potential agent. *fingers crossed*!!! :-)

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